Summary | On Beyond Darwin


Various answers have been given to the question of whether the present state of the universe is the result of chance or design. Newton believed that there is a design and that the design is discoverable by man. The evidence for design was the existence of general laws. For Newton, the idea of a design was consistent with his religion. This same kind of metaphysical view was held by Einstein who believed that a spirit is evident in the laws of the universe. Einstein’s own work was directed at finding the single law or theory, that would explain everything, although he did not succeed in finding it.

Much of physical science has been influenced by the widely held premise—that there are general laws which govern or describe what goes on in the universe. Our physics, if you will, has been influenced by metaphysics. Even when, in the twentieth century, it was found necessary to invoke chance in connection with atomic physics, the randomness was quickly incorporated into a general law—the uncertainty principle. In the nineteenth century, randomness entered with far less notice in the second law of thermodynamics. Although we think that when an event happens by chance it does not at the same time happen by design, somehow scientists have included the chance element as part of the design.

For many people, the existence of general laws implies a design in the universe—even with some elements of chance—and the existence of a design implies a Designer or Creator. Put the opposite way, the belief that many scientists have held—that there is a Designer—has influenced the present shape of science. Experimental facts are usually considered to be explained when they fit a general law—no further investigation is necessary, except perhaps, to subsume the general law under a more general law.

In the nineteenth century, the work of Charles Darwin on the origin of species denied the activity of a Creator in the special creation of each species. Darwin’s theory of evolution, by chance variation and natural selection, ran counter to contemporary religious convictions. (Creationists still believe that if science does not accord with religion it is bound to be wrong.) But Darwin was trying to show that evolution happened according to general laws, although the laws did contain a large element of chance in them. He too believed that the universe was governed—or described—by laws that could be discovered by scientists, although he did not hold this view because of religious convictions.

Some people have used the presence of chance in the laws of evolution or in the laws of physics to argue that there is no design in the universe, only chance events. The presence of the chance element in the laws has been used by them to deny the existence of a Designer.

I believe that the scientific study of the biological and physical universe should neither be able to affirm nor deny the existence of a Designer, Creator, or Spirit—call it what you will. It is my strong belief that the question of whether the present state of the universe is the result of chance or design, or even a mixture of chance and design, is an unanswerable question. It will never be decidable by scientific means. I believe that science is neutral on the religious question. This is, if you will, my metaphysical position.

But, as it is presently framed, science does not seem to me to be neutral—it was developed by scientists who were not neutral and their metaphysical attitudes are still there in the science.

Newton in many ways set the pattern of scientific thought. He believed that the behavior of specific things was explained by the existence of general laws. But, how do you explain the existence of general laws? Most scientists say that the order we observe in the universe arises because there are general laws. But, I believe that general laws imply design. To resolve my dilemma I have had to turn Newton around and say that the existence of general laws ought to be explained by the behavior of specific things.

But, you may object, there would be no order in the universe if there were no general laws, and I agree that there is evident order. My thesis is that the order can be explained by the fact that everything in the universe is made up of a few fundamental objects or particles. The most important of these fundamental particles are electrons, protons, and neutrons. If we know the properties of these three, all else can be deduced. There are only a few basic species of things.

Darwin showed that the properties of a particular species of living things are related to the local environment of that species. In the case of fundamental particles, the local environment of a particle is provided by all the other fundamental particles in the universe.

It is one thing to suggest a new point of view in science and another to show first, that the new point of view can be consistently held, and second, that there is any benefit to changing to that new point of view. This is why I have attempted in this book to go through the whole body of physical theory to see how all the general laws might be explained in terms of the properties of specific things like electrons, protons, and neutrons. It is a very large project and, in the main, I have relied on explanations that have already been put forward by other scientists but have often not received any kind of general acceptance. In some few cases, I have had to make some speculations of my own. These speculations seem reasonable to me in the context of the larger argument but perhaps would not otherwise be considered seriously. They must be taken as examples of the kind of explanation I seek, and the case I make must be looked at as a whole.

But, what is the benefit of all this effort? It opens doors that have remained shut—when a general law is accepted as an explanation, questioning often ceases. By opening the doors I have been led to ideas of considerable novelty—ideas that are perhaps worth consideration. But, as it happens, there is another benefit that I did not anticipate. In my examination, I have come to a description of the way things are that is, to me, considerably simpler than the present orthodox view, based on general laws. As an information scientist and as a person who taught Physics for many years, I welcome a corpus of physical scientific knowledge that is easier to comprehend. It is all too simple for the average person to drown in the information explosion or give up in trying to learn very much about physical science. We as scientists must do everything we can to keep it simple.

But, you say, what if the universe is not simple? If it were simple, I would have to try to explain why it was simple. In fact, in this book one of my main problems, beside the apparent existence of general laws, is the existence of simplicities. These too are often taken as evidence of a Designer—a Designer who, moreover, is rational. Simplicities, to me, require an explanation.

All scientists know that scientific truth is tentative but, nevertheless, radical changes in that truth are rarely accepted. Evolution of knowledge is much more comfortable. But, sometimes a more drastic revision recommends itself.

It is the object of science to replace, or save, experiences, by the reproduction and anticipation of facts in thought. Memory is handier than experience.

Ernst Mach

When you build a system it is either a ragbag or a bed of Procrustes.

Robert Finch

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